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Health benefits and uses of less well known mints

Eight less well known mints

Eight less well known mints. Left to right, top to bottom from top left: Australian mint, Brisbane pennyroyal, cornmint, Hart’s pennyroyal, horsemint, red mint, slender mint and water mint.

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

I’ve already dealt with a number of different mint species including peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, ginger mint, Corsican mint and (European) pennyroyal. But there are a number of other species in the Mentha genus, most of which are used less frequently and are less readily available in nurseries. Of course, the availability will depend on where exactly you live. In Australia, you’re probably more likely to find at least two of these “less well known mints” as I’m calling them here, since they are native to Tasmania and the Queensland coast. I expect the same goes for some of the others in different parts of the world.

All mints are species in the genus Mentha and have some things in common. They all have a minty fragrance and flavour, they all prefer a richer soil than you’d use for most other herbs, they all attract bees, butterflies and similar wildlife while deterring rats and mice, and they all have a strong tendency to become invasive if you don’t take steps to prevent this – the normal method being to plant them in a big flower pot (bottomless if you like) and then plunge that into the soil. Even then, some of the more prolific seeders and the ones that lean over and root from the tips of their stems will need to be watched like a bunch of naughty school children, or they’ll get out of control and start running all over. All the mints on this page also like a moist soil, in fact some will thrive actually in the water, if it’s not too deep.

For medicinal use, gather leaves just as the plants come into flower to use immediately or for drying. To dry them, lay them out in a single layer in a cool, dry, airy place out of direct sunlight, turning now and then until completely dry, then store in an airtight jar (preferably made of dark-coloured glass), label and store in a cool, dry cupboard.

Please note that none of the herbs covered in this post are suitable for internal use by pregnant women.

Australian mint

Australian mint

Australian mint aka river mint, Mentha australis. Native to Australia including Tasmania, where it is listed as a threatened species.

An erect or sprawling herb reaching a height of 50-75cm (20″) with long thin lance-shaped toothed fairly hairy leaves up to 6cm x 2cm. Found growing wild by streams or in clay depressions. Suitable for any moist soil in full sun/partial shade.

Not often used in cooking, but may be used as a substitute for other mints when these are not available.

A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water can be used for high temperature, headache, indigestion and other digestive disorders. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses.

Brisbane pennyroyal

Brisbane pennyroyal

Brisbane pennyroyal aka bush mint, creeping mint (or native pennyroyal in Australia), Mentha satureioides. Native to Australia.

A mat-forming herb which reaches 30cm x 1m with leaves up to 35mm x 7mm and hairy stems, found growing wild on riverbanks, open forest and pasture. Suitable for any moist soil in full sun/partial shade.

The leaves can used raw, cooked, as a flavouring and for tea.

A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water can be used as a general tonic, for muscle cramps, high temperature, headache, indigestion and other digestive disorders. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses.

Cornmint

Cornmint

Cornmint aka field mint, wild mint (see horsemint which is also called wild mint), or pudina in ayurvedic medicine, Mentha arvensis syn. M. austriaca. Native to Europe including Britain, northern Asia and the Himalayas, naturalised across much of northern USA.

An erect or semi-sprawling herb which reaches 60-100cm x 1m with hairy toothed leaves up to 65mm x 20mm and hairy stems. Found growing wild in moist heathland and woodland edges. Suitable for any dry or moist soil in full sun/partial shade.

The leaves can used raw, cooked, as a flavouring and for tea.

A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water can be used for high temperature, headache, indigestion and other digestive disorders. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses. It is used in ayurveda as an appetiser and for gastric disorders.

Cornmint is the most likely essential oil you’ll find apart from spearmint and peppermint. However, it’s not actually used in aromatherapy, but mainly by the pharmaceutical industry.

As with all essential oils, cornmint essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

Hart's pennyroyal

Hart’s pennyroyal

Hart’s pennyroyal aka water spearmint (see also water mint), Mentha cervina syn. Preslia cervina. There is a variety with white flowers: Mentha cervina alba. Native to Algeria, Morocco and Southwest Europe. Due to its native habitat, it would benefit from some protection in cooler regions during the Winter months.

This plant is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A semi-evergreen herb which reaches a height of 30cm with narrow lance-shaped greyish-green leaves. Found growing wild in damp places. Suitable for any moist or wet soil in full sun/partial shade.

The leaves contain high levels of pulegone, which is poisonous, so this plant is not edible raw, though toxicity is reduced by cooking.

The essential oil in the leaves is antiseptic, but also toxic.

Horsemint

Horsemint

Horsemint aka biblical mint, buddleia mint, silver mint or wild mint (see cornmint, which is also called wild mint), Mentha longifolia syn. M. incana, M. sylvestris, M. tomentosa. Native across Europe, Asia and Africa, naturalised in North America, also cultivated.

An erect or creeping herb reaching 1m x 1m with slightly furry leaves up to 10cm x 3cm. Found growing wild in wasteland and roadsides. Suitable for any moist soil in full sun/partial shade.

The leaves can be used raw, cooked, in salads and chutneys, as a peppermint flavouring and for tea.

A traditional remedy for bad breath and with vinegar for dandruff, recommended in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water is used for asthma, coughs, colds and other respiratory conditions, stomach cramps, flatulence (“gas” or “wind“), indigestion and headaches. It is also used in many places as a gargle and mouthwash to treat disorders of the mouth and throat. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses.

Red mint

Red mint

Red mint aka red raripila mint or rust free mint, Mentha x smithiana syn. M. rubra. A hybrid between Mentha aquatica, M. arvensis and M. spicata. Native to Northern and Central Europe and with a reputation for being resistant to mint rust.

An upright herb which reaches 1m x 1.5m with red stems and red-tinged foliage. Suitable for any moist soil in full sun/partial shade.

The leaves are excellent used raw, cooked, for tea, and as a spearmint flavouring for desserts, ice cream etc.

A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water can be used for high temperature, headache, indigestion and other digestive disorders. It can also be used externally as a wash for skin infections, cuts and grazes. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses.

Slender mint

Slender mint

Slender mint (or native mint in Australia), Mentha diemenica syn. M. gracilis. Native to Australia including Tasmania. Found growing wild in grassland and forest habitats. Due to its native habitat, it would benefit from some protection in cooler regions during the Winter months.A prostrate or upright herb 10-25cm x 50cm with flat hairless leaves up to 20mm x 12mm. Suitable for any moist soil in full sun/partial shade.

The leaves can used raw, cooked, as a flavouring and for tea.

A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water can be used for flatulence (“gas” or “wind“), high temperature, headache, indigestion and other digestive disorders. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses.

Water mint

Water mint

Water mint (see also Hart’s pennyroyal aka water spearmint), Mentha aquatica syn. M. hirsuta. Native to Africa, Asia and Europe, naturalised in New Zealand and the USA, cultivated in Mexico, Cuba and Guatemala.

An upright herb which reaches 1m x 1m. Found growing wild in swamp, marsh, fen and any wet ground. Suitable for pond edges or any moist or wet soil in full sun/partial shade. Can grow in water (up to 4 inches of water above the growing medium).

The leaves can used raw, cooked, as a flavouring and for tea.

A standard infusion made from 3 handfuls fresh or 15g (a half ounce) dried leaves to a cup (250ml, 8fl oz) boiling water can be used for high temperature, headache, indigestion and other digestive disorders. Take no more than 1 cup a day, split into three equal doses.


Bilberries are a wild relative of the blueberry

Bilberry health benefits: for circulation and eye health

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Bilberries are a wild relative of the blueberry

Bilberries are a wild relative of the blueberry

The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus syn. V. m. oreophilum, V. oreophilum and V. yatabei), is also known as blaeberry (mainly in Scotland), dwarf bilberry, European blueberry, whinberry or whortleberry. It’s closely related to various blueberries, cranberries and some huckleberries.

Description

Bilberries grow on a deciduous shrub which reaches a height of about 20cm (8in) and a spread of 30cm (1ft), prefering moderate shade and moist soil, though it will tolerate full sun and any well drained light to medium, acid or even very acid soil. As a member of the Ericaceae family it will not tolerate lime. It also won’t tolerate maritime exposure, but strong wind is no bother, in fact it is said that bilberries prefer a bit of a buffeting. It will also survive grazing or even being burnt to the ground!

As well as providing fruit and medicine, leaves and fruit have been used for dying: the leaves for green, and the fruit for blue or black. Fruit juice has also been used as ink. On top of all this, the plant is attractive to wildlife, in particular bees.

The bilberry is native to temperate areas across Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Japan, Mongolia, Europe including the UK, USA, Canada and even Greenland, flowering from April to June and producing small bluish black fruit 5-10mm in diameter with dark red, strongly fragrant flesh in September. Bilberry has red juice that stains hands, teeth and tongues deep blue or purple when eaten. It is sometimes confused with the blueberry, which has white or translucent flesh but is neither as fragrant nor as likely to stain the mouth.

Edible uses

Bilberries have been a traditional wild food, eaten raw or cooked. The raw berries are slightly acidic, but the cooked berries make excellent jam and are also used for pies, cakes, biscuits (cookies), sauces, syrups, candies and for juice. They are also dried and used like currants, and the leaves are sometimes used to make a herbal tea.

Contra-indications and warnings

Due to the high tannin content, it’s best to avoid excessive quantities or regular consumption to avoid digestive problems. Pregnant women should avoid bilberries altogether, as should anyone who is taking a prescribed anticoagulant such as Warfarin.

Medicinal uses

The parts used in medicine are the leaves, bark and fruit.

Standard infusion: 15g dried leaves to 500ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) boiling water. Stand for 15 minutes to 4 hours and strain.

Berry infusion: 1 tbsp dried berries to 500ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) boiling water. Stand for 15 minutes and strain.

Decoction: Put 15g dried leaves or bark in a ceramic, glass or enamel saucepan, cover with 500ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) cold water. Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer for 15 minutes, strain.

Dosage: Up to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) a day, split into 3 doses. Do not use for more than 3 weeks at a time.

A berry infusion can be used as a gargle or mouthwash to soothe sore throats and gums.

The decoction is used externally for ulcerated wounds and for mouth and throat ulcers.

Dried bilberries are used as medicine just by eating them. You can also use bilberry powder mixed with water, fruit juice or in a smoothie etc for the same purposes. The recommended daily dose of berries is 20-60g, or 2-5g of powder. They are high in antioxidant anthocyanins and used to treat diarrhea in both adults and children, and as a treatment for high blood pressure, varicose veins, hemorrhoids (piles) and broken capillaries. It also has anti-aging effects on collagen structures, and is very helpful for the eyes, improving night vision, slowing macular degeneration and helping to prevent cataracts and diabetic retinopathy.

Studies have shown that bilberry extract has potential in anti-cancer, circulatory disorders, angina, stroke and atherosclerosis treatments.

Aromatherapy

Bilberry is not used in aromatherapy.

Where to get it

I offer dried wild bilberries in my online shop.

Final Notes

As regular readers will know, if you are growing plants for medicinal use, it’s important to follow organic methods and avoid chemicals so that your remedy isn’t polluted by chemicals which may stop them working or even cause damage in the concentrations usually found in remedies. Bilberries are tough and resistant to many pests and diseases, so there’s no need to use chemicals. To find out more about organic gardening, visit the Gardenzone.


Liquorice root is available in health stores

Liquorice (Licorice) health benefits: for peptic, duodenal and mouth ulcers

Liquorice root is available in health stores

Liquorice root is available in health stores

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Liquorice or licorice in the USA, Glycyrrhiza glabra (a subspecies, Glycyrrhiza glandulifera or Glycyrrhiza glabra var. glandulifera is grown in Russia), is well known to everybody as a common sweet or candy, though you can’t guarantee that all liquorice candies actually have very much liquorice in them. Liquorice is not related to anise hyssop (sometimes called liquorice mint).

When I was a kid, we used to buy sticks of liquorice root in the local sweet shop, and chew them, discarding the woody fibers once the taste was all gone. They lasted for a very long time, partly I suppose, because we couldn’t do a whole stick at once, unless we wanted to experience one of the most well known results of eating liquorice – diarrhea! There are other far more serious possible consequences of an overdose, see below.

Though you’d never guess to look at it, liquorice is a member of the same family as peas, beans and lentils, which means that in areas where the appropriate soil organisms are present, it should fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, making the soil richer as a result. Of course, if you’re going to use it, digging it up will probably remove most of this bounty.

Not a particularly stunning plant, but as the part used is the root, there’s no reason why you can’t tuck it away somewhere out of the limelight until it’s time to dig it up.

Liquorice is a perennial which reaches a height of 4′ (1.2m) and spreads over an area of about 3′ (1m). It needs fertile, moist but well drained soil on the sandy side, and prefers alkaline soil.

Pick off the flowers as they occur for the biggest crop of roots.

It takes 4 years to produce a quantity of roots worth digging, but as well as growing from seed you can propagate new plants from root cuttings (each of which needs to have at least one growth bud). These should be brought on in pots in a cold frame until growing away well, then transplanted to their permanent positions in Spring.

Liquorice can be invasive once established.

Although it is possible to grow this plant, given the length of time required before you can harvest it, it’s probably easier to buy liquorice root from a health store (see below). So far as I know, sweet shops no longer sell it.

Liquorice can be used as a flavoring and/or sweetener, and the leaves are used as a tea substitute in Mongolia. The root fibers can apparently be used for making wallboards and similar products!

Liquorice is not suitable for anyone suffering from high blood pressure or kidney disease, pregnant women (because it has a hormonal effect) or anyone currently using digoxin-based medication. Take care not to exceed the stated dose (or eat too many liquorice candies). A large overdose can cause edema, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.

Decoction: Add 1 tsp well-crushed root to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) cold water in a non-metallic pan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and continue heating for 10-15 minutes, strain off root and use the liquid hot or cold. Dosage: Up to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) a day, split into 3 doses.

Liquorice is a soothing herb and powerfully anti-inflammatory. In Japan, it is prescribed to control chronic viral hepatitis, and there is research evidence to show its effectiveness to protect the liver in mice. It inhibits Helicobacter pylori, which makes it a useful aid in the treatment of both duodenal ulcers and peptic ulcers. It is also antispasmodic, tonic, diuretic, expectorant and laxative. Mainly used in herbal medicine to treat coughs and other bronchial conditions including asthma and bronchitis, it is also useful for allergic complaints, to help the body recover from steroid treatments, treat urinary tract infections, bladder and kidney complaints and stomach problems. As already mentioned, it’s also a pretty good laxative. It is also sometimes used to treat Addison’s disease. Externally, a root decoction can be used to treat herpes, eczema and shingles. Use as a mouthwash to treat canker sores (mouth ulcers).

Liquorice is not used in aromatherapy.

I offer a selection of liquorice products in my online shop.

If you decide to grow your own liquorice, follow the rules of organic gardening. Since the part used is the root, this is especially important to avoid foreign chemicals ending up in your remedy. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.


The sweet briar is an old rose, but still popular. Inset: rose hip

Rose health benefits: many types, many uses, but all are beautiful

The sweet briar is an old rose, but still popular. Inset: rose hip

The sweet briar is an old rose, but still popular. Inset: rose hip

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

The rose which according to Shakespeare “by any other name would smell as sweet” comes in so very many types that it’s difficult to do it justice. Most of us just call any rose we come across “a rose”, and yet there are about 150 species, and that’s not taking into account the very many varieties and named cultivars.

What I’ve decided to do is just cover a selection. These are the Californian rose, the dog rose, the cabbage rose, the damask rose, the French rose, the Cherokee rose, the chestnut rose, the sweet briar and the Ramanas rose. Of these, the dog rose, sweet briar and Cherokee rose are most useful in the herbalist’s stores; the cabbage rose and the damask rose are the ones used in aromatherapy.

For information on alternative and scientific names, see the table below:

Latin name Common name Other names
Cabbage rose Rosa x centifolia syn. R. gallica centifolia. R. provincialis cabbage rose Burgundy rose, Holland rose, moss rose, pale rose, Provence rose
Californian rose Rosa californica Californian rose
Cherokee rose Rosa laevigata syn. R. cherokeensis Cherokee rose Chinese jin ying zi
Chestnut rose Rosa roxburghii syn. R. hirtula, R. microphylla chestnut rose chinquapin rose, sweet chestnut rose; Chinese ci li
Damask rose Rosa x damascena syn. R. gallica f. trigintipetala damask rose four seasons rose, Portland rose, York and Lancaster rose
Dog rose Rosa canina syn. R. bakeri, R. lutetiana, R. montivaga dog rose common briar
French rose Rosa gallica syn. R. provincialis French rose apothecary rose, Hungarian rose, officinal rose, Provins rose, red rose of Lancaster
Ramanas rose Rosa rugosa Ramanas rose hedgehog rose, Japanese rose, rugosa rose, tomato rose, Turkestan rose; Chinese mei gui
Sweet briar Rosa rubiginosa syn. R. eglanteria sweet briar Eglantine rose

Roses are not related to rose root, rose geranium, Guelder rose or hollyhock (also called althaea rose).

All roses with single or semi-double flowers produce rose hips (see picture inset into main picture), which vary in size and color, but are otherwise pretty similar from one type to another. These have been used for many years as a food source and also to produce rosehip syrup. Rose hips are rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamins A, C and E, bioflavonoids and essential fatty acids. Rose hips are currently being studied to see if they are effective as an anti-cancer food.

Take care if you decide to harvest your own rose hips: there are hairs inside which can cause serious irritation, not just to your mouth, but your entire digestive tract. You need to use a very fine filter to remove these when extracting the juice.

Cabbage rose (Rosa x centifolia)
This is a hybrid and is only found in cultivated form. Numerous cultivars are found throughout the world. On the alternative medicine front, it’s more often used in aromatherapy than herbalism, but can be used as a remedy.

The powdered root is astringent and can be used to stop bleeding. A standard infusion of petals is used as a gentle laxative. Follow this link for information on rose in aromatherapy.

I offer dried Rosa centifolia petals in my online shop.

Californian rose (Rosa californica)
As you might expect, this rose is native to California, but is also found in Oregon and northern Mexico (Baja Norte). Its very restricted range has made it a candidate for conservation status in the US. Do not collect from the wild.

Use a standard infusion of flowers to treat pain and fever in infants. An infusion of seeds can be used to treat stomach disorders. A decoction of hips (see note above about filtering) is used internally for colds, fevers, indigestion, kidney disorders, rheumatism and sore throats or externally as a wash on sores and old wounds.

Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata)
The range of this plant is restricted to China, Taiwan and Vietnam, which makes the name a little strange. However, an explanation is found in Wikipedia. Apparently, it was introduced to the southern United States in the late eighteenth century, where it gained its English name. “The flower is forever linked to the Trail of Tears and its petals represent the women’s tears shed during the period of great hardship and grief throughout the historical trek from the Cherokees’ home to U.S. forts such as Gilmer among others. The flower has a gold center, symbolizing the gold taken from the Cherokee tribe.” It’s also the state flower of Georgia, USA. In China, it is called jin ying zi.

A standard infusion of leaves is used for wounds. A standard infusion of flowers is used to treat dysentery and as a hair restorative. A decoction of dried fruits (see note above about filtering) is used internally in the treatment of chronic diarrhea, infertility, seminal emissions, uncontrolled urination (urorrhea), urinary disfunction and vaginal discharge (leukorrhea). A root decoction is used to treat prolapsed uterus. A decoction of root bark can be used for diarrhea and excessively heavy periods (menorrhagia).

Chestnut rose (Rosa roxburghii)
Another attractive rose native to China and Japan.The plant is rich in tannins and is used as an astringent. In China (where it is called ci li) the hips are used to treat indigestion (see note above about filtering).

Damask rose (Rosa x damascena)
Like the cabbage rose, this is a hybrid found only in cultivated form. Again, it’s more often used in aromatherapy than herbalism, but can be used as a remedy.

Make a standard infusion of petals for use internally to treat diarrhea or externally as an astringent. A preserve of petals can be used as a tonic and for weight gain. Follow this link for information on rose essential oil.

As with all essential oils, rose essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

Dog rose (Rosa canina)
Native to Europe, including Britain, north Africa and southwest Asia, but found in Australia, New Zealand and the USA by naturalization.

A decoction of hips (see note above about filtering) can be used to treat colds, diarrhea, gastritis, influenza, minor infectious diseases and scurvy (as it is rich in vitamin C). Commercial rose water made from the plant is used as a gently astringent lotion for delicate skin. The plant is also used in Bach flower remedies.

I offer various Rosa canina products in my online shop.

French rose (Rosa gallica)
Native to Europe, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.

A standard infusion of petals can be used internally to treat bronchial infections, colds, depression, diarrhea, gastritis and lethargy or externally for eye infections, minor injuries, skin problems and sore throat.

Ramanas rose (Rosa rugosa)
Native to northern China, Japan and Korea but naturalized in Europe including Britain, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. In China it is called mei gui.

A standard infusion of leaves can be used to treat fevers. A standard infusion of flowers is used to treat poor appetite, indigestion and menstrual complaints, to improve blood circulation, and as a spleen and liver tonic. A root decoction is used to treat coughs.

Sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa)
The wild form is native to Europe including Britain, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. It’s also found naturalized in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and South America.

Make a standard infusion of dried rose petals to treat headaches and dizziness, add honey for use as a heart and nerve tonic and a blood purifier. A decoction of petals is used to treat mouth ulcers.

If you’re a regular reader you won’t be surprised when I tell you that, like all other plants grown for medicinal purposes, roses should be grown organically to ensure that the active constituents aren’t masked or changed by the presence of foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing roses visit the Gardenzone.


The name great mullein is not undeserved

Great Mullein health benefits: for respiratory complaints, frostbite and chilblains

The name great mullein is not undeserved

The name great mullein is not undeserved

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Great mullein, Verbascum thapsus, has a huge number of other names including Aaron’s rod, Adam’s flannel, beggar’s blanket, beggar’s stalk, blanket herb, bullock’s lungwort, candlewick plant, clot, clown’s lungwort, common mullein, cowboy toilet paper, Cuddy’s lungs, duffle, feltwort, flannel mullein, flannel plant, fluffweed, golden rod, hag’s taper, hare’s beard, Jacob’s staff, Jupiter’s staff, molene, Moses’ blanket, mullein, mullein dock, old man’s flannel, Our Lady’s flannel, Peter’s staff, rag paper, shepherd’s clubs, shepherd’s staff, torches, velvet dock, velvet plant, white mullein, wild ice leaf, woollen and woolly mullin. It’s not related to lungwort, nor to the plant normally called goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea, which incidentally is another plant also known as Aaron’s rod) nor rose root (also sometimes called Aaron’s rod), all of which belong to different botanical families.

Great mullein in the first year

Great mullein in the first year

Great mullein is a biennial which reaches a height of 2m (6′) or more in the second year, thoroughly deserving the name, though in the first year it has a totally different form and apparently different leaves, as they are thickly coated in fuzz, see picture left, rather like lamb’s ears (also unrelated). This must be where all the names about blankets, flannel, velvet and wool come from, as the full grown plant gives very little clue to this (although the hairs are still present, they are not so obvious). In fact, it’s quite a brute, isn’t it?

Given its appearance, this is not a plant anyone is likely to grow as an ornamental, despite the fact that the flowers (as well as the size) are similar to hollyhocks (unrelated, lol). I guess since it is so big it could be tucked at the back of a border with something in front to conceal the unattractive foliage, though this will leave the first year form (which is a lot prettier) hidden. This may not work in any case, because it is insistent on living in full sun, and will not thrive in shady areas. Perhaps it is best relegated to the allotment or bought dried from your friendly local herbalist.

Great mullein is found growing wild all over the temperate world, having been introduced to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand from its native Europe, Africa and Asia. Although unlikely to become invasive except in areas with little competition or after forest fires, it is listed as a noxious weed in Colorado, Hawaii and Victoria, Australia. Because each plant produces a huge number of seeds which can lie dormant for up to 100 years, it is very difficult to eradicate completely.

If you decide to grow it, you will find that it is completely unconcerned about soil type or acidity and will thrive in moist or dry conditions, though it does prefer chalky, well drained soil. As already mentioned it needs full sun. It will not tolerate maritime winds (despite the fact that it is often found growing in coastal areas). Sow in a cold frame from late Spring to early Summer, barely covering the seed. Pot on as required until late Summer, when they can be planted out in their final positions.

The leaves contain the natural insecticide, rotenone. Do not grow great mullein close to ponds which contain fish, or allow the leaves or seeds to fall into the water. Both leaves and seeds contain compounds that cause breathing problems and consequent death in fish.

The name torches comes from the old custom of dipping dried stems into wax or suet to make torches. Dried leaves were also used as candle wicks and can be used as tinder. Leaves were put into shoes to provide insulation.

Flowers produce a yellow dye without mordant, green with dilute sulphuric acid, brown with alkalis. An infusion of the flowers with caustic soda was used by Romans to dye their hair blonde.

Due to hormonal effects, great mullein is not suitable for use by pregnant women or anyone trying for a baby.

The parts used in medicine are the juice, leaves, flowers and roots. The seeds are not used, as they are toxic to humans as well as fish. If using great mullein juice, leaves or flowers internally in liquid form, it must be carefully strained through a fine filter to remove the irritating hairs (a “quick and dirty” method would be to put a layer of clean kitchen towel in a tea strainer and pour it through that).

Great mullein has been used in medicine for at least 2,000 years, when it was recommended by Dioscorides for chest complaints. After its introduction into the US, native Americans used it to make syrup for treating croup (an acute inflammatory condition of the airways often characterized by a barking cough). It was once listed as a medicine in the German Commission E document to treat catarrh, and in the National Formularies of the US and UK. Even today, its main use is for coughs and other respiratory disorders. The dried leaves were once smoked to relieve asthma, croup, TB cough and spasmodic coughs in general.

Properties given for this herb are: analgesic, anodyne, anti-cancer, antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, bactericide, cardio-depressant, demulcent, diuretic, emollient, estrogenic, expectorant, fungicide, hypnotic, narcotic, nervine, odontalgic, sedative and vulnerary. This list refers to the whole plant. Different parts of the plant have different properties.

To make a standard infusion, use 15g (a half ounce) of fresh or 30g (1 oz) of dried leaves to 500ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) boiling water. Allow to infuse for a minimum of 15 minutes (up to 4 hours), then strain carefully as described previously before use. The flowers are also sometimes used in the same way. The dose is a third of a cup, taken up to 3 times a day.

A decoction of roots is made by putting 15g (a half ounce) of fresh or 30g (1 oz) of dried chopped root in a small saucepan, adding 500ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) cold water and bringing to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and continue heating until the liquid is reduced by half, then strain off the herb and discard.

To make an oil maceration of mullein flowers, fill a bottle with as many flowers as will fit, cover with olive oil and seal, then shake thoroughly. Place on a sunny windowsill and shake thoroughly once a day for 3 weeks, then strain off and discard the flowers using a fine filter to remove all hairs, as described above. Reseal and store in a cool place out of direct sunlight.

To make a poultice, mix fresh or dried chopped leaves with very hot water and mash up, then wrap in a piece of gauze and wring out as much of the liquid as possible. Apply to the area to be treated, refreshing in the hot water when it cools.

The standard infusion reduces mucus production and is expectorant. It is taken internally in the treatment of a wide range of chest complaints, including bronchitis, mild catarrh and sore throat. Its demulcent and astringent properties make it a good treatment for colic, diarrhea and hemorrhoids (if blood was found in the diarrhea, a decoction of leaves boiled in milk for 10 minutes was traditionally used instead, but my advice is to visit the doctor as this can be an early warning sign of more serious illness). It can also be used as a treatment for internal parasites (vulnerary).

An infusion made using 1 teaspoonful per cup of a mixture containing 2 parts of great mullein to 1 part each of coltsfoot and uva ursi by volume, taken twice a day, is recommended for lung repair by  Dr Elise Wright of AllExperts.com. According to eHow Health, the expulsion of a black tar-like substance after several days of use is an indication of this mixture’s effectiveness.

A decoction of the roots is analgesic and anti-spasmodic and can be used to treat toothache, cramps and convulsions. It can also be used to treat migraine.

Grind up dried roots and mix with strained mullein juice to make a topical treatment for boils, chilblains, hemorrhoids and warts. It is said to work only on rough warts, not smooth warts, though as all warts are caused by HPV, this seems strange. It’s probably worth trying even on a smooth wart, for this reason.

A poultice of leaves can be used to treat hemorrhoids, external ulcers, splinters, sunburn and tumors.

Studies have found that great mullein flowers have a bactericidal action and may also be effective against tumors. A flower maceration is used externally to treat bruises, chilblains, eczema, frostbite, hemorrhoids, mouth ulcers and ringworm. It can also be used in the ear to treat earache (2-3 drops at a time, up to 3 times a day).

A homoeopathic tincture of mullein is used to treat long-standing migraine.

As with all herbs used as remedies, great mullein should be grown organically to avoid corrupting your remedy with noxious chemicals. To find out more about growing organic great mullein visit the Gardenzone.


Corn fields used to be full of cornflowers

Cornflower health benefits: for tickly coughs and eye infections

Corn fields used to be full of cornflowers

Corn fields used to be full of cornflowers

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

The cornflower, Centaurea cyanus, used to be a common sight in cornfields (as were poppies) before modern agricultural methods virtually eliminated it. The flowers are pretty, and they are often grown as ornamentals, particularly in the double form. Perhaps because of its popularity, the cornflower has many other names including common cornflower (to distinguish it from other cornflowers, and also from chicory which is sometimes called cornflower), bachelor’s button (a name which it shares with the mountain cornflower), bluebonnet, bluebottle, blue centaury, cyani, boutonniere flower and hurtsickle. A member of the knapweed genus, it is closely related to the mountain cornflower, but not to chicory or the centaury.

Cornflowers are less often seen growing wild nowadays, despite the fact that they will grow in any kind of soil, even very alkaline soils, and can survive drought. The wild cornflower can reach a height of 3 feet (1m), though many ornamental cultivars are bred to be much shorter.

Cornflowers are hardy annuals and very attractive to wildlife. Other members of this genus are food plants for various types of butterfly and moth. As may be expected from their original cornfield habitat, cornflowers prefer cultivated soil and full sun, making them ideal candidates for a well-tended garden.

Cornflowers were once used for many other purposes besides medicine. The flowers are edible and can be used raw in salads or cooked. They were also used as food coloring, mainly for confectionery. The petals can also be used to make ink or a blue dye, mixed with alum water, and dried flowers are often added to pot pourri to add color.

Cornflower is not suitable as a herbal remedy for pregnant women.

The flowers are the part used in medicine. Make a standard infusion by pouring 570ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) of boiling water over 1 ounce (30g) of dried flowers or 3 handfuls of fresh. Allow to stand for between 15 minutes and 4 hours, then strain. This infusion can be used as a remedy for tickly coughs and a weak diuretic. It can also be used as a treatment for mild constipation. Externally, it can be used as an astringent, to treat minor woundseye infections and mouth ulcers and to soothe itchy skin.

As with all plants grown for use in herbal remedies, cornflower must be grown organically to avoid its active ingredients being altered or eliminated by the presence of foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.


Tormentil can ease toothache

Tormentil health benefits: for toothache and mouth ulcers

Tormentil can ease toothache

Tormentil can ease toothache

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Tormentil or common tormentil, Potentilla erecta but possibly labeled as Tormentilla erecta or Potentilla tormentilla, is also known as bloodroot, shepherd’s knot, septfoil and upright septfoil.

There are several plants which may be confused with the tormentil I’m talking about in this post. The spotted cranesbill, Geranium maculata, is sometimes called tormentil in the US. Other members of the Potentilla genus are also called tormentil, so it’s important to be sure which one you have, by reference to the latin name. The name bloodroot is also used for an unrelated herb native to Eastern North America.

Tormentil is a not particularly attractive hardy perennial found growing wild all over Europe and Asia in clearings, open fields and moorland, even on sand dunes (and gardens, if not weeded out), reaching a height of around a foot (30cm), and a spread of about 8 inches (20cm). It will grow in full sun or partial shade, and is not fussy as to soil so long as it is well drained.

The root is the part normally used for herbal medicine, and this should be gathered in Spring or Fall and dried for later use. However, the whole plant has the same useful properties (to a lesser degree), so if you don’t have any of the root (actually a rhizome) to hand, you can use the top growth instead.

A decoction is made with 15g (a half ounce) of dried root added to 570ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) of cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the liquid has reduced by half, and strain. An infusion would be made by adding 570ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) of boiling water to 3 handfuls of the plant and allowing to stand for 3-4 hours before straining.

Tormentil is best known as a toothache remedy, but can also be used to treat diarrhea and all intestinal problems, sore throat and bacterial infections, and to lower blood sugar. It can also be used externally to treat mouth ulcers, gum infections and hemorrhoids (piles). The juice can be used to stop bleeding (styptic), and to treat cracked nipples and cracks in the anus.

As with all herbs grown for medicinal use, tormentil should be grown organically to avoid adulterating or eliminating entirely its intrinsic properties by the presence of foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic tormentil visit the Gardenzone.


The elder can become a bit of a weed

Elderberry health benefits: country people’s medicine chest

The elder can become a bit of a weed

The elder can become a bit of a weed

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

The common or black elder, Sambucus nigra, also known as elderberry and European elder, is a large shrub or small tree, reaching a height and spread of 18 feet (6m). As it’s difficult to get rid of once established, make sure you will be happy a plant of this size in the position you select before you go ahead and plant it. It is not related to ground elder or Guelder rose (sometimes called water elder).

Elderberry and elderflower wines were once favorites with maiden aunts, but are not often seen these days. Elderberry cordial is still seen occasionally, and has a reputation for health-giving properties, though the high sugar content probably mitigates that to a large extent. The flowers can also be used to make fritters.

Raw berries and leaves of the elder are poisonous if eaten.

Sometimes called “the medicine chest of country people”, elder is a popular herbal remedy with a long pedigree. Both flowers and fruit have anti-inflammatory properties, and can be used to reduce fever, and as a diuretic. The leaves have antiseptic properties.

A standard infusion can be made from flowers and fruit together and used as a remedy for colds and flu, sinusitis and fever. Rheumatism can be treated with a standard infusion made from the fruits only.

An infusion of elder bark is used as a treatment for arthritis and constipation.

Use a standard infusion made from leaves and bark as a wash for minor burns and chilblains.

An infusion of flowers can be used in the same way for minor wounds and skin inflammation, and as a mouthwash for mouth ulcers.

All these infusions are made by adding a handful of dried ingredient or 3 handfuls of fresh to 570ml (1.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) of boiling water and allowing to stand for at least 10 minutes up to 4 hours. Strain before use.

As with all herbal remedies, elder should be grown organically so as to avoid the corruption or elimination of its properties by foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic elder visit the Gardenzone.


Bistort grows best in moist soil

Bistort health benefits: a useful wound herb

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Bistort grows best in moist soil

Bistort grows best in moist soil

Bistort, Polygonum bistorta but sometimes labeled Bistorta major or Persicaria bistorta, is also known as dragonwort (a name which is also used for French tarragon) or snakeweed. It’s unusual in its requirement for moist or even wet soil, so may form part of a bog garden, perhaps, so long as it is not in full shade. If it’s happy it will reach a height of 50cm (20″), spreading over about 45cm (18″).

The first leaves should be available from late Winter, so it makes a useful vegetable during the “hungry season” and can be used like spinach. Don’t overdo it, though, as it may cause photo-sensitivity if eaten to excess. It contains quite high levels of oxalic acid, so anyone suffering from rheumatism, gout, arthritis or hyperacidity should probably stick to using it medicinally, rather than eating it as a vegetable.

Bistort is a strong natural astringent. The leaves can be applied to wounds to stop bleeding. Make a decoction using 15g (half an ounce) of dried root to a pint of cold water. Put these into a pan, bring to a boil and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half, then strain for use. The dose is up to 1 cupful per day. You can use this to treat heavy periods, diarrhea, cystitis and catarrh. You can also use it as an external wash for vaginal discharge, cuts and grazes, and as a mouthwash for disorders of the soft palate, tongue and gums such as mouth ulcers.

As with all herbal remedies, it’s important that the active constituents are not contaminated by foreign chemicals, so they should always be grown organically. To find out more about growing organic bistort, visit the Gardenzone.


Sage is helpful for the menopause

Sage health benefits: versatile multi-purpose herb

Sage is helpful for the menopause

Sage is helpful for the menopause

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

(A video covering the main points in this post can be found at Sage Health Benefits)

Sage (Garden or Kitchen Sage), Salvia officinalis, is the last member of the big four immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel (based on a folk song of unknown age). Leaf colors vary from green to greenish gray, which are most likely to be seen, and purplish-red (var. purpurascens). The red variety is traditionally preferred for use in herbal medicine, but you can use green sage if that is all you have. It is closely related to clary sage, Chinese red sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza) , the sacred white sage (Salvia apiana) and Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia), as well as various ornamental sages grown in the flower garden. These are not covered here, as they do not necessarily share the same properties.

Sage is often used in cooking, so you may well have some in the kitchen cupboard, which you can use if you don’t have any in the garden, but it’s very easy to grow from seed, and well worth the effort – or just buy in a plant or two from your local nursery, if you don’t want dozens of sage plants to give away. You can pick leaves any time of year in most parts, even if you have to brush off the snow first. The main thing to watch out for when planting is to put it in a sunny position, and to make sure it has good drainage, as it won’t stand waterlogging.

If you wish to grow it from seed, soak the seed for an hour or so in warm water before sowing direct in Spring. Thin gradually to 45cm (18″) apart. Thinnings can be transplanted or used in the kitchen. Harvest leaves June and August for drying. Prune out straggly growth and trim to a neat shape in October or November. Can also be propagated by cuttings in Spring and Summer. Pick leaves as required for immediate use and the main crop of leaves just before flowering for drying or distillation of oil.

Left to its own devices, Sage is a straggly bush, but gardeners usually trim it back to a pleasing shape in mid-Autumn. The trimmings are ideal for drying for the kitchen, where it is a popular ingredient in stuffing, particularly suitable for fatty meats like pork, though there are many other uses. The easiest way to dry the leaves is to hang them up in bunches somewhere nice and airy (not too humid, or they will go moldy and be useless for anything), and then strip the leaves off once they have dried.

Remember that, if you want to use sage medicinally, it’s important that it is grown organically so that its properties are not masked and you don’t end up ingesting toxic ingredients (such as pesticides), by accident.

At this point, I need to warn you that sage is toxic in large amounts, and that it is not suitable for use as a herbal medicine by anyone who is pregnant or suffering from epilepsy.

Make a standard infusion with 3-4 teaspoons of fresh or 1-2 teaspoons to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) of boiling water in a pot, leave to stand for 10 minutes and strain into a cup, adding some lemon and/or honey if you wish. You can drink this hot or cold, but for relieving sweating or hot flushing, it is better drunk cold. Limit intake to one cup a day.

Sage is antibiotic, anti-fungal, astringent, anti-spasmodic and a good nerve tonic. Sage is also well known for its estrogenic properties, which makes it useful for regulating periods, reducing milk production, and as a treatment for menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes. Recent research indicates that patients suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease who drink a cup of sage tea a day may experience improved brain function. Alzheimer’s is such a debilitating disease that this is well worth trying, on the principle of “it can’t hurt”.

The same infusion is good for colds, anxiety/depression, flatulence (“wind” or “gas”) and indigestion. Used at half strength it is good as a gargle for sore throat, as a mouthwash to treat ulcers and sore gums, and as a douche to treat vaginal discharges. It’s also useful as a wash for bites and stings (remove the sting first if necessary), and for skin infections.

Visit the gardenzone for more information about growing organic sage.

I offer various sae products in my online shop.

Aromatherapy

Sage essential oil is toxic. Do not use under any circumstances.

As with all essential oils, sage essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.